When IT Gets to Play

Give your tech teams the resources to test new ideas, and big business value will follow.

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This CIO, who's the type who likes to keep things under the radar, also notes that a skunk works is an ideal setting to hone IT staffers' understanding of risk. "One of the biggest concepts with risk is the difference between 'I know' and 'I think.' Once you've had the opportunity to play with something, you know about it," he says. The proof is in the projects. "We've increased our project output by 300% because my team now knows how to take risks," he says.

One of his skunk works' biggest successes has been its work with cloud computing. "We're operating an internal cloud and now extending it out to deliver applications to our vendors and trading partners," the CIO says. The ultimate goal is to have all enterprise data reside in the cloud. The IT group will securely deliver applications to any device, but all data will remain in the cloud. Thanks to work done and risks taken in the skunk works, the company is well on its way to achieving this goal, the CIO says.

At Flextronics International, a global contract electronics manufacturer, CIO David Smoley avoided creating a dedicated skunk works in the traditional sense.

"A skunk works is a tool that can help innovation, but they're needed most in an environment that kind of stifles innovation," he says. Smoley recalls his work at previous employers, mainly "large companies where there was a heavy bureaucracy and rigid processes. The way you got around that was to spin off some folks and set them up off-site somewhere."

At Flextronics, he says, "we created a kind of massive skunk works by creating a place where it's safe to take some risks. In fact, we encourage that," he says. "We highlight failing fast, experimenting, trying things but trying them small. If they work, add a little more. If not, throw them out, move on and don't kill the guy who tried it," Smoley says.

This is precisely how the company's internal social network known as Whisper came about. "We have a software group in the Ukraine that developed the tool for their own use. They brought it forward a year ago," Smoley recalls. "There are many companies where I've worked that would immediately have killed the guys because that was not what we were paying them to do. But we embraced it," he says.

Smoley, however, says he wasn't so sure about the need for Whisper when tools like Facebook and Google were already available, so he organized a bakeoff.

"We put together some business and IT folks and ran a pilot and ultimately went with Whisper enterprisewide," he says. "But that never would have happened if the guys in the Ukraine didn't feel safe and comfortable [about experimenting]. If they felt they were going to get fired, they wouldn't have thought at all about it, and if they did, they would have hidden it."

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